by Rebecca Nerison
Scary financial news is everywhere we look these days. Layoffs, bankruptcies, foreclosures,
portfolio devaluations – there’s a lot to worry about if we let ourselves. Fear can be a friend or foe. Fear is a friend when it motives us to “right
action,” such as building up savings, deferring unnecessary expenditures,
getting bills out timely, and generally taking care of business.
Fear becomes a foe when we get caught up in mental loops of worry
over things we cannot control. Fear can
cause us to do things we wouldn’t do if we were calm and thinking clearly. (Consider some of the mistakes your clients
have made that resulted in difficulties.)
Fear can cause avoidance and, in large enough doses, paralysis.
The consequences of such paralysis can be especially dire
for solos or small firm lawyers, who practice with a much smaller safety net
than those working in government or larger firm settings. There is no one to cover for these lawyers or
prod them into action. And inaction, of
course, can lead to bar complaints.
Managing our tendency to worry is important now more than
ever. Among the many anxiety management
techniques available, we offer the following seven. Thanks to Eckhart Tolle and his books Practicing the Power of Now (Novato,
Calif.: New World Library, 1999) and A New Earth:
Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose (New York: Plume, 2006) for many of these ideas.
between “legitimate” fear and psychological anxiety
Fear is a signal that something is wrong or
that we are in danger. It’s our reaction
to smelling smoke – there’s a fire we need to locate and extinguish. Something needs our attention. We need to take action. If we ignore our fear when it is legitimate,
bad things can happen.
These difficult economic times may
be sparking legitimate fear if your financial situation needs attention. Your overhead may be higher than you can
afford. Perhaps you haven’t been
spending enough time developing referral sources. You haven’t been saving when you could have.
If fear is a legitimate response to
something that needs your attention, take appropriate action. Face the situation squarely, devise a plan,
and do what you need to do. If there’s
nothing you can do (which is rarely the case), you can accept the situation as
it is, including any consequences that may accrue. Acceptance will eliminate fear and allow
peace of mind.
Psychological anxiety differs from
fear in that it is not a response to an identifiable threat. It is by definition diffuse and vague and is
usually focused on something bad that might
happen in the future.
Anxiety distracts your attention
from the present and focuses you on an imagined future that is
undesirable. It all occurs between your
ears. It isn’t real. It robs you of enjoyment. And it tends to be habitual in many
people. Anxiety will not help you
weather the storm. Action or acceptance
2. Focus attention
on what is in your control instead of
Start with attention itself. Are you controlling your thoughts or are they
controlling you? With practice, you can
learn to contain thoughts that make you anxious instead of allowing them to run
When we focus our attention on
vague, unmanageable forces such as “the economy,” we tend to feel small,
scared, and impotent. So why focus on
the declining stock market or housing prices or rising unemployment rates? Unless you have the power to reverse these
forces – or take advantage of them – focusing on them is likely to make you
feel more anxious, not less.
Instead, think about your
practice. What do you need to do
today? What case or client needs your
attention? How current are your billings? How’s your marketing? How connected are you to colleagues and referral
sources? These are activities firmly
within your control. Focus your
attention on them.
Many things in life are, frankly,
outside your control. You can let this
fact lead to a panic attack, or you can calmly accept it. One advantage of owning your own firm is that
you can control (i.e., manage) things such as overhead, fees, and the clients
you take on. Making a list of practice
factors in your control may help you stay calm.
Doing what you can is a powerful
antidote to fear and helplessness. If
you ignore the things that you could do to improve your situation, you are
losing precious opportunities. As you
patiently and consistently attend to what is in your control, you build a sense
of efficacy and competence.
3. Accept the fact that many aspects of the
global economy are a mess right now
waste energy thinking they “should” be different than they are. When things don’t go as we’d like, we tend to
rail against the universe, politicians, or the guy next door. We want to blame someone. We want someone to take responsibility and
make things right.
Well. This is human nature. And it’s probably the most unproductive
attitude you can adopt.
When we get angry
about a situation, we add insult (psychological distress) to injury (the pain of
the situation itself). We create inner
conflict that doesn’t need to be there.
We create suffering for ourselves and for those around us.
If you can change a situation, by
all means take action. If you can’t
change the situation, accept it. Don’t waste
your time and energy wishing things were different. The classic “Serenity Prayer” expresses this
beautifully – serenity to except the things I cannot change, courage to change
the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
So the next time you catch yourself
getting angry or anxious about government policies or budget deficits, take a
look at your own policies and balance sheets.
Are they in good order? Could
they be modified to serve you or your clients better? Are you running your personal and business
economies the way you’d like to see larger entities running theirs? If not, get busy! And if you have developed great business
practices, can you help your colleagues who haven’t?
4. Keep yourself in
the present: you can’t cope with the
This is one of the most
powerful anxiety management tools there is.
It’s also the most difficult.
Why? Because most of us
habitually hang out in the past or the future.
When we dwell on past events that
caused unhappiness, we feel increasingly depressed, angry, or resentful. And when we project into the future and
foresee scary things happening, we feel anxious.
Notice that we are creating these
emotions between our ears. What happens
when we stop playing mental movies of despair or gloom and focus attention on
what’s in front of us right now? We feel
calmer. We find energy and focus to do
what we can. We create a more positive future
by taking care of what’s in front of us – now.
For the solo or small firm lawyer,
staying in the present can be particularly challenging. Because you run your own business, you really
have three jobs: providing legal
services, managing your office, and marketing your services. You need to have a least part of your brain
power planning your time if you are going to succeed at all three aspects of
your business. Planning, of course,
requires looking into the future and estimating allocations of time.
Planning is a practical and
necessary use of your mind. We get into
trouble only when we dwell in the future rather than doing things that need to
be done. If you find yourself feeling
frequent anxiety, monitor how much time you spend in the imaginary future.
5. Limit your media
If tracking the stock
market throughout the day makes you anxious, check twice a day instead of ten
times. If reading financial news gets
you down, read less. If listening to
news programs makes you angry or depressed, turn them off.
“But I’ll lose touch with what’s
going on!” you protest. I don’t think
so. There’s a big difference between
being informed and being immersed – or obsessed.
In this age of instant information,
we are in danger of drowning in negativity.
The obvious solution to too much is – less. Media exposure is in your control. Exercise that control, especially if you tend
to worry or obsess about events outside your control.
Studies show that it’s
more important to avoid pessimism than it is to boost optimism. Besides the media, there’s another kind of
exposure to beware: people who take a
perverse pleasure in forecasting doom and gloom. How do you feel when you are with these
people? Do the conversations motivate
you to get back to the office and take care of business, or do they make you
want to hide under your desk?
Negative people need an
audience. If being around them gets you
down or raises your anxiety level, choose other companions or limit time spent
with them. It’s a free country – you get
to decide. Practicing law can be
negative enough without adding unnecessary pain to it.
In addition to people “out there,”
watch your own inner Eeyore. Guard
against unnecessary negativity. It’s a
cancer that spreads.
It’s not the events in life that
make us happy or unhappy – it’s how we interpret those events. If adopting an optimistic attitude is not
doable, try for neutral. Tell yourself
the truth. For example, “Things are
looking scary right now. And, no matter
what happens, chances are I’m going to be okay.” Because chances are, you will be.
Think about the financial crash of
the late 1920s that ushered in the Great Depression. Many people suffered huge losses. How did they respond? Some interpreted loss as catastrophic. They couldn’t tolerate the pain, perceived
that their situations were hopeless, and subsequently jumped out of tall
buildings. Others acknowledged their
losses, weighed their options, and got busy surviving. Most did not die of starvations or exposure. They rallied their resources and did what
they could, one step at a time. One day
at a time. Most survived.
Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1933
inaugural address said it best (italics mine):
This great Nation will endure as
it has endured, will revive and will prosper.
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless,
unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert
retreat into advance.
Roosevelt was right. We revived.
We prospered. We probably will
again. His words encourage us to avoid
becoming victims of “irrational despondence.”
7. Take time to
focus on things that have little to do with financial concerns, such as
relationships, beauty, spirituality, and meaning
This concept can be difficult for solos. A law practice tends to be a consuming
thing. Those three roles we touched on
earlier can use up all your available time and then some.
However, working all the time
exacts its price, as does a singular focus on money. You become unbalanced, grumpy,
one-dimensional. You lose perspective
and forget why you chose this path in the first place.
Fortunately, the best things in
life truly are free. While healthy
finances are important, there’s a lot more to living a rich, meaningful
life. Roosevelt commented on this point
later in his 1933 inaugural speech:
Happiness lies not in the mere
possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of
creative effort. The joy and moral
stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent
profits. These dark days will be worth
all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered
unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.
Let’s all do our part in creating a world that works. The first step is to manage our practices and
our anxieties as best we can. That may
not sound like a powerful intervention, but it’s an enormous gift to ourselves
and everyone around us.
This article is reprinted with permission
from Rebecca Nerison. This article
originally appeared in the October/November 2009 issue of GP Solo, Volume
26, Number 7.
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